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High hopes

Why curating a church art gallery is like ‘walking on a razor blade’

High hopes

Tim High at Visual Arts Ministry (VAM) Gallery in Austin Oaks Church (Kevin Vandivier/Genesis Photos)

By World Journalism Institute students Myrna Brown, Paul Butler, Alex Duke, Steve Patton, Hannah Phillips, Andrew Shaughnessy, Dane Skelton, Russell St. John, Brigitte Sylvestre, and Marty Van Driel—with Marvin Olasky

Tim High is a big man wearing jeans and a grin. He’s got socks under his sandals and a slow, friendly way of talking about art. He carefully lays out on a table a set of prints: three reduction woodcuts. He lovingly describes an artist’s process in creating these works: carving an image into a block of wood; rolling out and printing each color one at a time, from the lightest tone of ivory white to the darkest tone of black; and cutting away areas to be retained after each section. The process takes an enormous amount of craftsmanship, time, and care.

Creating an art gallery in a church also takes great care. High wanted to find a way to educate members of Austin Oaks Church about art and to introduce the neighborhood to the church in a nonthreatening way. Together with architect John Jackson, he decided to use the blank walls in the church’s spacious, high-ceilinged lobby to display a rotating series of art exhibits.

Few church buildings include an art gallery, particularly one that showcases works by both Christian and secular artists. Tim High hopes to use the gallery to show that Christians are concerned about culture and creating beauty in a broken world. Yet, artists often intentionally provoke controversy, and some Christians question whether art belongs in a church at all.

High is the volunteer curator of the Visual Arts Ministry (VAM) Gallery in Austin Oaks Church. He’s also a printmaker and art professor at the University of Texas. In January he pulled together an exhibit that showcased works by 18 printmakers from across the United States. He had to make hard choices about works that are beautifully and intricately made.

In one print, a grim-faced teacher, gun strapped to her side, stands in front of a bullet-riddled blackboard and holds out a poisonous-looking apple. In another, a young African-American in a hoodie makes a peace sign with one hand and folds the fingers of his other hand in a pistol-like gesture. Lightly printed in the background: “Lives Matter.” High says, “The work was a little bit concerning for some of the administrators and pastors here,” so he showed the work at the exhibit’s opening but chose not to leave it up afterward.

A large, panoramic beach scene on six panels also posed a problem. The panels showed people of many ethnicities, races, ages, and body types, but High decided to hold back one panel with a bikini-clad woman in the foreground: “You have to be careful. You don’t want to offend the youngest eyes that will see the work, and that’s sometimes difficult.”

The gallery has had some pushback over the years, but High says that’s not the norm: “It’s gotten kind of rare. I think we’ve learned to be better watchdogs about it.” At one point VAM showed an Adam and Eve piece done by a local artist—but people got upset seeing frontal nudity in the church. High’s wife Cindy cut out “a little two-piece bathing suit and pasted it on the painting.”

The artist, he added, was gracious about it.

Although High held back a few pieces, what remains is far from kitsch. For example, four works by Illinois professor Michael Barnes show glum humanoids ignoring their surroundings as they stare at the menial tasks in front of them. In Tending to Critical Matters, the foremost figure waters a solitary patch of grass, unmoving, his head filling up with the contents of a large ear trumpet sticking into his head.

Barnes’ parents raised him as a Christian: He remembers vividly the illustrations from Bible storybooks in the family home. Though he is no longer a believer, he says most Christians have a positive outlook toward the art world. He defends the right of an artist to produce whatever he wishes, but also recognizes that not everyone wants to view it. No one has censored Barnes’ work from what he can recall, and many of his friends and acquaintances of different religions have praised it.

Leslie Friedman, ‘And the Home of the Brave’

Louisiana State University professor Leslie Friedman often focuses on identity and identity politics. VAM displayed her And the Home of the Brave, in which the reflection on a man’s sunglasses shows a woman protesting a high-profile police shooting. She stands with her hands partly out as a SWAT team advances toward her. Friedman says, “I wanted to encourage viewers to consider how similar scenes affect [them] if they are not a part of the group speaking out.”

Though Friedman noted she is not a Christian, she understands the church is concerned with themes of love and compassion. She hopes her art helps viewers move closer to these ideals. She opposes artistic censorship, but editing specific works for the expected audience at a gallery makes sense: “You should be able to walk in your church and not be offended by what’s on the wall.”

Dallas printmaker Barbara Elam’s Chita shows the delicate ghost of a dress twisting in motion on blocky reds and blues. The dress is pale, lacy, and bodiless, as if the pigments have captured a long-ago memory of sinew and grace on a Latin dance floor. Some of Elam’s older work included nudity. She chose not to send any of those particular pieces to the VAM Gallery, noting that some parents would object: “This is a real conservative state. ... I don’t think any of my nudes are vulgar in any way, but it’s just the way it is here, you know?”

Boyd Saunders, ‘Southern Serves the South’

The VAM show displayed three prints by Southern Graphics Council founder Boyd Saunders. Southern Serves the South shows a walking man with red, clay-dusted shoes. Tattered clouds sweep the sky, and a lone crow perches at a railroad crossing while freight cars ease into a sun-bleached depot. The etching suggests the plaintive cry of a train whistle and a forlorn traveler returning home.

Saunders is 80 and quips, “I’m better than I’ve ever been!” In his warm drawl he calls his art “visual poetry.” Rejecting complex descriptions of his work, he tells simple stories beautifully wrought: “I’ve been a storyteller all my life.” He did not know that his art adorns a gallery housed in a church foyer, but approves: “I like it!” Given the church’s investment in art, Saunders promises to reconsider his long-standing skepticism toward the Christianity of his childhood, hoping to reconcile art with faith.

Louise Fisher’s Diurnal or Nocturnal displays delicate plant shadows, the inky photonegative of a streetlight, and tiny lamp stamps arranged in a circle. It’s beautiful, subtle, and noncontroversial, but Fisher finds it interesting that a church is showing her work: “A lot of artists don’t really trust the church. … The art world in general consists of freethinking, liberal people and activists … and the church is obviously seen as tied with American politics and conservative agendas.” She hopes the VAM Gallery helps people from opposite ends of the political spectrum meet and mingle.

Worshippers entering Austin Oaks in January immediately confronted Rhode Island printmaker Joan Hall’s Diatom series. From a distance, her prints are pleasing displays of color: Muted greens and grays contrast with a splash of red and a vibrant dash of neon blue. Closer inspection reveals a web of combs, fishing wire, and other trash: Hall turns ugliness into beauty.

Although Hall does not profess to be a Christian—“The ocean is my religion,” she says—her work embodies High’s idea that Christian artists should ferret truth, beauty, and grace from a fragmented world. Hall: “Beauty can be a powerful tool. It draws people in and evokes thinking and a conversation.”

SOME CHRISTIANS BELIEVE art galleries stand outside the mission of the institutional church. They believe that individual Christians should be artists and curators according to their callings, but that the New Testament does not call the church to employ art as an outreach tool: It tasks the church to preach Jesus, who transforms sinners. When Christ transforms sinners and equips them as disciples, they engage culture in their various callings. As a result, cultural transformation of society—including the arts—follows, but the church promotes it only indirectly. The best way for the church to engage the arts is to make disciples.

Other Christians believe churches are free to have galleries and are relearning the importance of engaging culture on all levels, including the visual arts. But bridging the gap between the secular art world and evangelical visual sensibilities, not to mention branches of theology, remains a challenge. Many artists say Christians don’t value or appreciate good art.

Tim High for 15 years had confronted questions of “what kind of art to display, mindful that the canvases would be hung just steps outside the church sanctuary.” He questioned whether the gallery should be restricted to “clean art,” but ultimately decided to follow the Bible in highlighting a realistic picture of the human condition. Man’s sinful nature is on full display in Scripture, but so is God’s plan of redemption. High explains: “We are always walking on a razor blade.”

Lost audience in Louisville

What’s the point of an empty church building?

In 2006 this question vexed Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Ky. The congregation had bought and renovated for worship an old elementary school, but the building stayed empty most of the week—until Sojourn opened an arts center and called it The 930, after the number in its street address.

Louisville’s musicians embraced The 930. Some were perplexed by its attachment to a church, but most just enjoyed in-the-round seating and good acoustics. Mike Cosper, one of Sojourn’s pastors, said, “We never had a goal to create a Christian subculture or to host a Christian coffeehouse where you trick people into thinking they’re at a casual hangout and then ambush them with an altar call. [The goal was] neutral ground, to lock arms with our neighbors and work for the common good.”

The attempt at first worked. Concerts sold out. Local media and artists normally opposed to conservative Christianity embraced Sojourn’s efforts. But in 2008 the Louisville Eccentric Observer, an alternative newsweekly, ran on its cover a photo of a man with his arms raised in praise at a Sojourn worship service. The headline: “Smells Like Holy Spirit.” The deck: “They’re young, involved, and socially aware—and think being gay is a sin. How does Sojourn Church square its progressive image with some of its more regressive ideas?”

Emily Sill/Flickr

The 930 (Emily Sill/Flickr)

Kevin Janes, who ran the venue, called the story “a bell you couldn’t unring.” A small but vocal segment of Louisville’s LGBT community began to send letters to bands, urging them not to play at The 930. Janes “thought if we kept doing the work and kept offering good content, this would blow over. But over time, the crowds dwindled.”

Cosper lamented: “The anger we inspired wasn’t about the way we ran the arts center ... [but because] we had conservative Christian beliefs in the first place.” The message, Cosper said, was now clear: “Get on board, or go away. Acclimate, or disappear.”

After two years, Sojourn’s attempt to lock arms with a community in mutual appreciation of the arts ended exactly where it began: with an empty church building. —Alex Duke

World Journalism Institute students

World Journalism Institute students

World Journalism Institute students

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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  • Fani's picture
    Posted: Sat, 02/17/2018 10:27 am

    "The message, Cosper said, was now clear: 'Get on board, or go away. Acclimate, or disappear.'”

    This should send a chill up our collective spines—if we still have spines.

    There is no tolerance in the gay community. Understand this. LGBTQ is the tip of an iceberg. The depth of hatred for those who do not EMBRACE their choices would astound those who do not personally interact with them. I'm blessed to be friends with a handful of people in the LGBTQ community, and I purposefully engage in these friendships. It's a struggle sometimes to speak up when it's needed. I pray for wisdom and discernment. I do honestly love these friends, but... I wonder if they'd eventually join the crowd in stoning me if ever a crowd formed to stone me for my beliefs. 

    Why be friends with them if I harbor this fear? For two reasons: 1) I do actually like and love them; 2) I don't think they will ever understand Jesus and Christianity without a personal connection with a follower of Jesus. And even if they never understand, perhaps knowing me will cause them to question their hatred for all who (for whatever reason) do not actively advocate for their "rights." 

    Because I do love them, I cannot embrace their choices. I hope someday they can understand this.


  • Fani's picture
    Posted: Sat, 02/17/2018 10:40 am

    To my knowledge, the most effective thing I've ever done is ask this question (when they talk about the "intolerance" of others):

    What would you do/say if your job/friendship/family/future/community required you to say that homosexuality is an evil, wrong thing? or That marriage should only be between one man and one woman?

    So far, I've only gotten blinks (as if they're thinking, That's so absurd it's beyond consideration!) and a change of conversation.

    There is just an inability or unwillingness to consider that a person's suitability for a job, for example,  should not rely on his/her personal beliefs. It extends even into the scientific community: can someone's scientific work be evaluated for merit alone—whether or not the scientist believes in evolution?

    And I'll go even further: in a public school I used to teach in, students often complained about a particular teacher who would occasionally insist (sometimes even shouting!) that "There is no God!" She was never reprimanded by parents or administration. I am quite certain, however, that had a teacher occasionally insisted that "There is a God!" that teacher would have faced not only reprimand, but possibly being fired.